Hi, my name is Hoby Wedler, and I will be talking to you about using adaptive technology in a chemistry class.

As a chemist, I notice how efficient vision makes people every day, especially when I observe them complete tasks like drawing the mechanism of an organic reaction on the board without much effort. While this is easy for sighted folks who know how to do the chemistry, it’s impossible for me. However, my generation is and will continue to be extremely lucky because of the wonderful technology that makes our lives more efficient.

Teachers and some role models initially discouraged me from pursuing a career in science, because they thought of chemistry as a visual field of study. However, the benefits of amazing technology and encouragement from people around me enabled me to complete my undergraduate degree in chemistry, and I am now earning a PhD in computational organic chemistry. As you decide your major or fulfill your quantitative academic requirements, you should not shy away from the STEM subjects just because you have a visual impairment.

The technology I utilized most prominently as an undergraduate studying chemistry in the classroom may sound low-tech at first. Basically, a sighted assistant uses 24-pound smooth laser printer paper, a pen, and any used notebook. The notebook provides a firm surface for the chemical drawing. First, the assistant draws the figure in pen about double the size that a sighted person would like to see it. Then, he or she flips the paper over and can see the image just drawn on the obverse side of the paper. Then the assistant traces the figure on the firm surface of the notebook, pressing hard with the pen to create a creased, high resolution tactile line, which is easy to feel. Anyone can create excellent quick tactile figures this way. Smooth laser printer paper stands up very well to Braille, so I always brailled labels on all of my figures. This way, anyone, from a competent scientific assistant to a friend or family member who doesn’t know science, could make tactile figures easily. These graphics were a great accompaniment to Learning Ally audio science textbooks in which figures were described. I could easily feel figures as the Learning Ally volunteer described them and get so much more out of the descriptions.

Once you find a few people who can draw figures for you, you and they will find out how simple, inexpensive and rewarding the process is. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of complex concepts, and the person drawing the figures will also learn more about the STEM field in which you are studying. In the beginning, expect a learning curve as your assistant becomes comfortable with making graphics for you. Be sure to give constructive feedback to anyone who draws for you, because you are striving for accurate knowledge. Once you are both more comfortable with the process, you’ll be amazed about how easy it can be to learn a concept someone told you was too visual.

Another method for creating low-tech tactile graphics is the tactile graphics kit which is available from the American Printing House for the Blind. This kit allows you to create customized maps, graphics and diagrams using aluminum or heavy paper.

Now, as a graduate student, I need to perform advanced chemical research at a level equal to my sighted peers. Sighted chemists can see all the molecular structures we study clearly on the computer screens in front of them. As a blind researcher who doesn’t want to have to spend all day working with assistants, I had to figure out a way to make the complex chemical structures my sighted peers see accessible to me. I use my 3-D printer to print models of complicated organic molecules and braille labels on them. This way, I can print out chemical structures complete with braille labels on all bonds and angles directly from my calculations. What sighted students see on the screen in front of them is what I hold in my hands to examine. What’s even more exciting is that my sighted peers discovered how useful these models are to them. Now everyone in our research group is using the 3-D printer and loving it.

Ultimately, I love technology and have benefitted so much from quality technical enhancements. I use it to maximize my efficiency and minimize any limitations my blindness causes. I feel lucky to have had access to the technology that I did and I am extremely lucky to be blind.

By Henry Wedler on Thursday, November 30, 2017 11:04:04 AM